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More than half the drug arrests in Australia are for cannabis (Image screenshot @7NewsSydney)

New data released by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission shows overall drug arrests doubled in the last ten years — but the number of dealers and manufacturers caught remained unchanged. What the hell's going on? Luke Williams explains.

A NEW REPORT has shown more than 154,000 people are arrested for drugs each year. About three quarters of them are drug users — not drug dealers.

But it’s not polite to start an article with statistics. How do I make this interesting then? With a story about the time I smoked opium in Laos and dreamed about being chased by bulldogs the size of trucks? How it’s the last time I used hard drugs; I’d left Australia unable to get a place in drug rehab; that it took two weeks just get an appointment with a drug counsellor?

Or a how about story from the colonial opium trade, or how it led to the world’s first drug control treaty. How it stopped the trade of cannabis into countries that had already prohibited it.

To clarify, it was the 1912 International Opium Convention that eventually led to the global criminalisation of marijuana, not my dream about bulldogs. After that came the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs, organised by League of Nations, a response to problematic coca and opium use in many countries around the world. Cannabis was also added to the agenda. A delegate from the Australian Government attended this meeting and agreed to criminalise the recreational use of all three drugs. The Government, in turn, wrote to the states and territories and told them to enact legislation to make using these drugs illegal. Then came the 1961 United Stations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which in effect made the 1925 agreement a binding contract and all the major countries around the world signed on.

What if I told you about a car park and a van? About drag marks, hair, blood stains, drag marks and three spent .22 calibre cases. That was in 1977. He was 43. His body was never found. He was an anti-cannabis campaigner. He ran a local furniture business called Mackay's Furniture. His name was Donald Mackay. He had called out a growing marijuana trade in his hometown of Griffith. NSW. Arrests followed. NSW Police’s special Purana taskforce is still investigating the affair.

A Federal Royal Commission into Drugs followed (1977-80), concluding we need more money for law enforcement to stop drug use. The fact criminalisation meant business opportunities for crime groups seemed to go unnoticed.

Fast forward a few decades to a report released on June 30, 2017, which said:

'The number of national illicit drug arrests has increased 87.6 per cent over the last decade, from 82,389 in 2006–07 to a record 154,538 in 2015–16.'

The report was from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s Annual Illicit Drug Data Report: it also said:

'The number of national cannabis arrests has increased 40.1 per cent over the last decade, from 56 862 in 2006–07 to a record 79 643 in 2015.'

So, if 154,528-79 643 (the total drug arrests in Australia, 51% of drug arrests in Australia are for cannabis.

Have a look at the report for yourself — HERE.

The latest recorded period in the ACIC report is 2015-16. They classify arrests into “consumers” or "providers”. You can see that while drug arrests have risen in the last few years, the number of drug dealers being arrested hasn't. 

Let me break it down for you a bit further.

ACIC Illicit Drug Data Report 2015-16: Highlights

Amphetamine type-stimulants arrests

The number of amphetamine users arrested had increased four-fold since 2011. Nearly 40,000 of the 47,625 arrests were drug users not dealers. In the last recorded cycle, there were more 12,000 total arrests for both drug users and dealers of amphetamine-type stimulants compared with 2014-15 — but there was a decline in the number of “providers” being caught. The rest were all amphetamine consumers.

To meet the “provider” threshold, you need to have at least more than two grams to methamphetamine or MDMA in most states and territories.  

Cannabis arrests

There were 79,643 arrests for cannabis use and supply recorded in 2015-16. More than 70,000 were consumers — an increase of about 10,000 over the last ten years. Arrests of “providers” remained the same.

To meet the threshold to be a "provider" you need to have at least ten grams or less of cannabis (or cannabis seeds) for personal use and/or

Other arrests

The rest of the arrests are for heroin, cocaine and “other drugs” (mostly GHB, GBL and ketamine).

Taken altogether, the number of “providers” being arrested has remained the same for all illicit drugs, though drug user arrests continue to go up and up.

When I went to Laos, I went to Chiang Mai and stayed in a Buddhist temple because I had run out of money. I meditated all day. Didn’t speak and didn’t eat past 11am — just as the rules dictated. I began to see fantasy as the root of all the madness. That life is short and good — on its own terms. I don’t take any drugs now. I think they are garbage. I think, if you’re pissed off with the world or looking for adventure, there are better things to do than escape to la la land.

So, I am not making an argument for drug use. But the simple truth is: a proportion of the population will always take them. And some will abuse them and some will become addicts. And I don’t have time for people who try to talk down the harms of drugs — especially those who have never encountered a world beyond middle-class-high-functional-what’s-the-big-deal-drug-use.

I am just saying a bunch things happened: the United Nations; the United States; that 1961 Global Narcotics Convention, where all the major nations agreed to outlaw 'non-medical use of narcotic drugs, such as opium smoking, opium eating, consumption of cannabis (hashish, marijuana) and chewing of coca leaves'. I’m not saying this was an Illuminati plot or that the CIA secretly wanted control of the drug trade. There were social problems that arose from drug use. Criminalisation seemed the best way to deal with them at the time — nearly 100 years ago now. I am simply trying to illuminate with a little bit of history.  

I am saying Australia is a signatory to several international drug treaties initiated by the United States based on

  1. their own drug-related social problems; and
  2. because many in the United States have a blanket moral opposition to any recreational drug use outside of alcohol (which they also banned at one stage).

I am saying these moves increased global drug use because it simply shifted a bunch of chemicals and plants to a black market often run psychopaths, who in turn worked out to make even more potent types of these substance; that the drugs that cause the majority of social harms in Australia are made overseas and smuggled in here, and Customs doesn’t have the resources to stop the trade. 

I am saying the net result is that Australia having even the smallest amount of any of these substances can lead to fines, arrests or charges — and that’s where pretty much all the spend goes. It is extremely difficult to get see a drug counsellor, let alone get a place in a drug rehab center. It can takes months, unless you have tens of thousands to get into a private one. It remains far easier, however, to get into rehab than a public psych ward. Our prisons are, by far and away, far less selective than either.

The average illicit drug user, despite their noise otherwise, doesn’t usually understand where their drug comes from or the science of what it does to them — they know only that it doesn’t do what they multimillion dollar Government advertising campaigns says it does. When me and my friends became addicted to crystal meth, most of us didn’t know the difference between it and powdered meth or or what is actually does to the brain. It took a long time of reading various research papers and talking to experts to work out what the drug does your brain chemistry and why that can’t be good long-term. It shouldn’t have been that hard to find that stuff out.

I am saying the vast majority of our collective Government drug spend goes on law enforcement. Dr Alison Ritter from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre told me the vast majority of that law enforcement spend goes on making drug arrests, prosecuting, taking people through courts — but even more so, on employing police officers. Ritter did that study in 2011. Things have improved a bit since then and most of that improvement has come from both sides of Federal politics putting more money into treatment — that was until the Federal Government decided it would spent millions making sure people on the dole wouldn’t smoke pot.

The response to the welfare drug-testing plan from Aaron Cogle, executive director of National Association of People with HIV Australia, was this: 

'While approximately 200,000 people receive AOD treatment in any one year in Australia, it is estimated that an additional 200,000 – 500,000 people seeking treatment are unable to access it. The National Ice Action Strategy saw a welcome 5% increase in AOD sector funding across the nation but obviously this falls far short of enabling a doubling of treatment places to meet current levels of demand.'

We already don’t have enough public money for public drug rehab beds because the vast majority is going to police to arrest people for possessing small amounts of drugs — and usually for possessing marijuana.

Look at the Australian Bureau of Statistics pages and you will see 11% of the people who went to court in Australia over the last recorded period did so because they have been charged with a drug offence, and more than half of those are people who have been charged with drug possession — not drug dealing. Think about that for a second — then consider the hundreds of thousands of people who want to drug treatment and can’t get it. Try calling a rehab nowadays and you’ll get a very apologetic receptionist who may even suggest you go overseas. And yet, as much as I am gradually becoming a puritan ex-drug user, the fact is most people who use drugs don’t even need medical treatment for their use, yet many of them will face court or, soon, get their welfare cut off. 

And now consider a bit of more context: our per capita rate of imprisonment has doubled in the last 30 years, the number of people in prison has grown four times, but the number of people in prison for drug offences has grown tenfold; rates of imprisonment that don’t make any impact on whether we have surges in drug-related harm. Over 3,000 people – or close to 14% of Australia’s prisoners – are in there for drug offences. The people who are going to prison for drug offences aren’t normally people charged only with possession (and to be clear, they are certainly not marijuana users — people caught for the first-time are usually just give a warning), they are almost never the big-timers either. The big-timers are usually in motorcycle gangs or working for international cartels.  

State and territory governments are the ones responsible for building and maintaining nearly all of our prisons. It’s the state and territory governments that are ones responsible for most drug laws, and the ones who keep pumping money into law and order programs. In some ways, their policies are improving: they are putting more money into treatment and education. However, it comes also as they keep on putting more and more and more into law and order administration more generally. Sometimes, it seems like two steps forward and one step back. But governments are tone-deaf to a growing hum of “bullshit” from both the left and elements of the mainstream and libertarian right.  

In the Northern Territory, 74 per cent of illicit drug arrests are cannabis arrests — the highest proportion of any state or territory. It’s not hard to guess why the NT has the country's highest arrest rate or, more particularly, who the police would be arresting.  

The Sunshine State has the highest number of illicit drug arrests in the nation — arrests for cannabis there are five times higher than more populated Victoria.

Our most left-leaning state government in our most-left-leaning state, the Andrews Government, dedicated an $81 million investment in 30 new drug rehab beds in its last budget. It was welcomed. And on the same token, a few budgets earlier it had set aside an extra $243 million towards upgrading and expanding prisons, and another $90 million for the Department of Corrections to assist them in administering community corrections orders.

In this year’s budget, the Andrews Government announced a range of measures to make prisons safer for people who work there — about $700 million worth. A budget that 'helps ensure serious crimes are punished and perpetrators are held to account and detained effectively to keep Victorians safe'. A budget that will fund a $288-million 'high security youth justice centre' in the western suburbs and a 'historic $2 billion boost' to Victorians to get 3,000 more police.  

I am saying more than incremental change is needed on drug policy. That perhaps the thing we need to do is come up with a very specific plan on how to overhaul this system – to put more money into education and treatment – to stop wasting everyone’s money and time with petty drug laws that do nothing but keep law enforcement people in jobs, send people through stressful legal procedures. It’s a system that anyone who is anyone stopped defending a long time ago.   

Luke Williams is a two-time Walkley nominated journalist, a law student and author of the Ice Age: A Journey into Crystal Meth Addiction

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